Best Movie Ever?: “Steel Magnolias”

Let’s get the urgent concern out of the way first: Are we OK with the idea of Lifetime’s Steel Magnolias remake? I’m on the fence, but I love Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott, and mesmerizing newcomer Adepero Oduye. That’s the good news. The downside is that a Lifetime remake may expose Steel Magnolias for what it really is: a Lifetime movie at heart.

As much as the lovable 1989 tearjerker comes up in conversation (which is mysteriously a lot, at least for me), it’s a slight movie with a plot suitable for the network that brought you She’s Too Young and every gymnast biopic featuring a traumatizing uneven bars scene. But that’s also Steel Magnolias‘ charm; though it’s a calculated, star-studded weep machine, it’s also completely embraceable (and quotable!) on those terms. Here are the reasons it may be THE best movie ever.

1. Everyone has a Steel Magnolia spirit animal.

This is so important. Ensemble tragicomic films rarely provide characters that everyone can relate to, but Steel Magnolias has a righteous, well-hatted dame for everyone. Speaking for myself, I’m a M’Lynn (Sally Field): I’m harried, but I’ll give you a kidney. I’m fair, thank you. I’m sympathetic, but I strongly discourage the existence of your children. They’re going to ruin you. Probably kill you.

You have to give it up to Sally Field in this movie. I assume she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar because she’d already earned two, but Ms. Norma Rae has to be the most convincing mother in the history of cinema. That’s not hyperbole! Sometimes when I think of my own mom in a commanding, authoritative mood, I accidentally picture Sally Field. I believe her maternal instincts in anything, even Homeward Bound. She voiced a cat in that, guys.

2. Face it: Julia Roberts is the last great movie star.

I spent the majority of my adolescence pretending to resent Julia Roberts and bemoaning her hair-raising cackle and IMAX-ready smile, but you know what? No one does the work of being a movie star like Julia. She epitomizes the idea of “The camera just loves her,” and her sheer presence makes movies like Flatliners and Mystic Pizza feel fuller than they are.

My Best Friend’s Wedding is doubly charismatic thanks to her. She’s even the best thing about The Pelican Brief, particularly in that heart-stopping scene where she reacts to a major explosion. Gives me the shivers, actually.

In Steel Magnolias, she may have the phoniest accent in the group (which is strange, considering Julia’s a Georgia native), but her enchanting, singsong delivery makes lines like “Pink is my signature color!” and “Remember what Daddy always says – an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure!” seem so damn lovable. We know her character Shelby is doomed from the minute we hear about her highly theatrical diabetes, but she makes you root for her with comely intelligence, magnificent hair, and the way she makes high-waisted pants look amazing.

In fact, those attributes earned her an Academy Award nomination, a feat with eluded the rest of the cast. That’s the spiritual message I take away from Steel Magnolias: Death may not lead to an afterlife, but it usually leads to an Oscar nomination.

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